Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Perfectionism

I will be the first to admit that I am a Type-A personality archetype and hardcore perfectionist when it comes to accomplishing anything that really connects with my idea of what's important. It's not everything, all the time, (though if you talk to my mother she'll tell you otherwise), but in the past few weeks I have wound up in tears more than a couple times due to the sheer impossibility of dedicating all the time and energy I thought my assorted assignments were worthy of to their accomplishment. Rationally, I know that by the time all is said and done, my version of a "half-assed" assignment is more than adequate in the whole scheme of college expectations, but I hate being forced to comprimise when I would otherwise go back over and over (and over!) something, tweaking it to death!

How ironic then, that I actually got to spend the last five weeks of my life doing just that... and with a recipe project no less! Ah yes, this would be one of the rare times where it's actually a blessing to bring your work home with you. Leftovers? Oh, yes please! Especially after five weeks of intensive recipe development and perfection! If nothing else, we (though mostly my mom, who takes what I bring home into work for lunches) have been eating a virtual rainbow of deliciousness, no doubt!

The basic elements of our assignment that led to all this wonderful food were simple: pick or write a recipe, suitable for a mass-production type setting, that could be made in under an hour and wouldn't cost the school a bloody fortune in ingredients. Okay, that last part should be obvious, right - I mean, it is a community college after all - but some groups wanted to do things with crab and steak! Cost aside, when you take into account that not only are we a) being "mentally streamed" into working with geriactric clients or the physically infirm who wouldn't be having those foods anyway but b) these are the same people that couldn't master making a pot of soup from a can of the condensed stuff? Forgive me for saying I don't blame our prof for ixnaying that one. For my group, even though I knew from past experience that three of the five of us could at least boil water, I wanted to stay away from the "traditional" animal protein-heavy dishes we usually cooked in class.


Since we had yet to do a single vegetarian offering (perish the thought of veganism in that kitchen!) I set about writing this recipe based off of a rice and bean meal I used to make in university with the various elements avalable in our food court (yeah, you should have seen me popping all over those kiosks, making up a meal! One line? Pshhht). Originally, I came up with the concept of a smooth, spicy tomato sauce mixed with black beans and steamed broccoli, to be served over pasta so that we didn't have to mess around with long or weird rice cooking issues. My friend Johana suggested adding spinach and a chunkier, richer type of sauce for everything, keeping the same flavours, and because she loves cheese we added in a good dose of Parmesan too. In retrospect that spark of her genious really made this pasta as good as it was in final copy - the cheese melts just enough to bind the ingredients to each other and to the noodles. My favourite tweak is to pull the pasta from the water about 3 minutes before it's al dente, and finish cooking it in the sauce instead. Not only do you get the whole starch-binder thing happening, but the flavour exchange is phenomenal!

Because I'm just that kind of anal, OCD, perfectionist cheffy person, I opted to lug my giant toolbox (Canadian Tire special, 'yall!) to these classes - stocked with scale, measuring spoons/cups, spatulas, mandoline, spare towels... what have you. I had deliberately written the original recipe in a way that would require minimal measuring by volume, because not only is weight more accurate and easier to standardize (the end goal of the project), but I'm just too lazy to bother mucking up a kitchen's worth of tools for something! Really, the more "open can, dump in" we could do for this, the better. Not only would it be easier to do but it would be faster, and since we didn't have to mess around with proper meat temperature probing when none of us - I guarantee you - has calibrated our $2 food-safety thermometers (or taken them out of the package *looks around*) it wasn't like we would run the risk of killing anyone. I do think that if nothing else I have convinced about 8 people in that class to go buy a digital scale, now that they've seen how easy our group has it now!

That said, the initial execution of the dish was not without some issues. They were not anywhere near critical problems, thank God - and really, they were more amusing than anything else to me! two of the volumetric measurements were for the amounts of tomatoes (which I had originally written as diced) and tomato paste. A cup of diced, two tablespoons of paste. Simple, right? Well, first, the school kitchen only stocks whole canned tomatoes. Not a problem if you cook often enough to see that whole tomatoes + wooden spoon = diced, but because it didn't match the written copy there was some slight drama! And those two tablespoons of paste? Well, apparently reading the recipe was not #1 on the to-do list of the two girls cooking that first class. I was "Supervisor" that day, meaning no actual hands-on fun but rather teaching the girls on prep (who are at least eager to learn!) the basics of chopping broccoli and onions, peeling garlic and sharing how much fun it is to just grate garlic into something rather than messing around with the whole knife-mince schtick. So, we're all working away, and I'm filling out (read: totally BS'ing) some of the temperature audit sheets when I hear the girls at the stove scraping a can.
Odd, I thought, they shouldn't need to be scraping out anything by now, the black beans aren't needed yet...
Well, it wasn't the beans - initially I was worried they'd neglect to drain and rinse them, but thankfully Johana (I love that girl!) eats legumes regularly and was totally on the ball, directing one of the preppers to break out the seive. No... it was the tomato paste. The. Whole. Can. And not just a standard, 6-oz can either. Nope, we were cooking industry style... our cans were 10-oz'ers. So not two tablespoons!

The shock and sudden panic I had must have registered quite clearly on my face, because they started panicking faster than the sauce turned to stew. I don't really know how much of a stress reliever I was, but when I realized that it was a pretty basic thing to fix, I simply told them to add water and stir, measuring the amount of water they used (only because we needed the info for the assignment sheet). They didn't really seem to think it would work out originally, but truth be told it really helped the recipe along! Ironically, it wasn't for another week that I realized exactly why the extra paste worked out so well - they had added the entire can of tomatoes too! Aha. So yes, I would say the whole "recipe development" goal of the assignment = reached, several times over!

I even took this recipe a step further at home, as well as a step "back" in a sense: First, I suggested to my mom that leftovers could be placed into a microwave and oven safe mini casserole dish or bowl, heated up, topped with shredded pepperjack cheese and broiled for a delicious "gratin" style meal for one, and it really worked out well! The other thing I tried was in essence to return this recipe to it's roots, serving the sauce portion on a delicious bed of brown basmati. The sauce on it's own is a great make-and-freeze recipe too - just add the par-cooked pasta to it when you reheat!

This delicious dinner is my submission to this week's Presto Pasta Night edition over at the ever creative kitchen of Ruth.

Spinach And Black Bean Pasta
Serves 8, generously
16 ounces whole wheat rotini or penne pasta
1 tbsp salt
1 ¼ cups vegetable broth (1 10-oz can)
1 cup water
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes, chopped (I used a pair of kitchen shears in the can)
4 ounces chopped broccoli
½ large onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced (if I was making this just for myself I'd probably add more like three)
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp black pepper
10 tbsp (about ¾ a can) tomato paste
1 (19 ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
8 oz fresh spinach, torn (and in case you're wondering, a 10-oz box of frozen *will* work, but as we found out it definitely does not look as nice! Just really, really wring it out before adding it)
½ cup Parmesan cheese
  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
  2. Add salt and pasta.
  3. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes (it should be shy of “al dente”) and drain. Do not rinse.
  4. Meanwhile, in a large pot over medium heat, bring the vegetable broth and water to a boil.
  5. Mix in tomatoes and broccoli, reduce heat slightly and cook 2 minutes.
  6. Add onion, garlic, cayenne pepper, oregano, cumin and black pepper. Cook 2 minutes, stirring.
  7. Stir in the tomato paste, mixing well.
  8. Add the black beans and spinach. Cook 7 – 8 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  9. Add the drained pasta to the sauce mixture and mix gently to coat with sauce.
  10. Add the Parmesan, stir well and simmer in the sauce for 5 minutes, until pasta is al dente.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 322.3
Total Fat: 3.6 g
Cholesterol: 4.9 mg
Sodium: 735.5 mg
Total Carbs: 65.9 g
Dietary Fiber: 13.4 g
Protein: 16.0 g

5 comments :

kat said...

The dish sounds great but what an effort to get there

Ruth Daniels said...

Great story and delicious results. Thanks for sharing with Presto pasta Nights.

tigerfish said...

I like the screwy pasta that is capturing all the essence.

Joanne said...

What kind of class are you taking and where can I sign up? This sounds like such a fun project.

I am such a Type A personality as well...always the perfectionist. I'm glad this worked out so well in the end! Seems like a great recipe, especially the gratin you made for yourself.

Melissa Peterman said...

Great post! So creative- Not sure if you heard- but Foodista has put a call out to all food bloggers to submit blog posts and recipes to the Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook.
For the next couple months, food bloggers can submit their photography, writings, and original recipes to Foodista.com. The public can view all submissions on the website and vote for their favorites. That feedback and editors at both Andrews McMeel Publishing and Foodista.com will determine 100 entries chosen for inclusion in "The Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook." More info available here: http://www.foodista.com/blogbook.

You should enter this post.
Good Luck!
you've got a great chance to win!